Robust winds prompt burn bans in Wichita, Sedgwick County

A Wichita firefighter sprays water on a grass fire near Zoo Boulevard and Ninth Street. (Feb. 17, 2016)
A Wichita firefighter sprays water on a grass fire near Zoo Boulevard and Ninth Street. (Feb. 17, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

A burn ban is in effect in Wichita through at least noon on Friday, officials said.

Sedgwick County officials have banned all burning through Friday and may extend the ban into the weekend.

The bans were instituted because of dry conditions and strong winds, which were gusting to more than 45 mph late Thursday morning. The south winds were blowing steadily at nearly 30 mph.

“Hopefully, we can get through this” without fires, Wichita battalion Chief Stuart Bevis said.

Bevis urged residents to control their smoking.

“Throwing cigarette butts out the window is a sure way” to start a grass fire in these conditions, he said. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen do that. … It’s very dangerous and can lead to a significant fire.”

Anyone who tries to barbecue, especially if they’re using charcoal, should be “very, very careful,” Bevis said.

Even chimineas in winds like this could cause problems, he said, because the gusts could stir ashes and perhaps carry an ember to dry vegetation.

Any time the grassland fire index reaches 50, the risk for fire is considered extreme, Sedgwick County Fire Marshal Dan Wegner said. The index was 100 or more on Thursday, he said.

Sparks from a passing train ignited grass and caused an estimated $5,000 in damage in west Wichita on Wednesday, he said. The fire was reported shortly after noon near Ninth and Zoo Boulevard. Homes were spared and no injuries were reported, Bevis said, but fences and sheds were damaged.

Anyone who sees a grass fire approaching their property should call 911 immediately, he said. If they have a sprinkler system, activating it could protect their home or business from the flames.

“Grass fires can move incredibly fast,” Bevis said. “A garden hose is of limited use. It’s going to put those people at harm.”

If the fire reaches a row of trees and those trees are dry, they “can go up like Roman candles,” Bevis said.

Two extra fire units were on duty Thursday to respond to any grass fires, Bevis said.

“With these winds and our dry conditions, it just can grow out of control so fast,” he said.

The strong south winds helped boost temperatures to record levels around Kansas. In Dodge City, the high reached 88 by early Thursday afternoon, breaking the record for highest February temperature on record, set on Feb. 1, 1963.

Goodland likewise set records Thursday. The 82 not only was a record for Feb. 18, it was the highest February reading in the city’s history.

Wichita set a new temperature mark – 77 – as well early Thursday afternoon, climbing above the old mark for Feb. 18 of 74 from 1930.

Contributing: Matt Riedl of The Eagle

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger